parkrun organise free, weekly, 5km timed runs around the world. They are open to everyone, are free, safe and easy to take part in. These events take place in pleasant parkland surroundings and people of every ability are encouraged to participate. Sound idyllic don’t they, but let me tell you these things bite.
My first one back after fully recovering from an injury was going to be fairly gentle and be the foundation upon which I built a return to my former speed. It didn’t go like that.
I started conservatively enough from the back of the small pack. Our parkrun, being in a rural area, only attracts about 40 runners during the winter. I eased past a few people then settled into a steady, but reasonable pace. However, there was someone just in front of me so I thought I’d pass them. They had other ideas and soon came past me. ‘Okay you want a contest, let’s duel’ I thought. I sped up and passed them then increased the pace. I stayed in front for a few minutes before they overtook me again. ‘Ah a worthy adversary’; I decided to sit a couple of metres behind, observe how they were running and work on a plan.
The pace was good, I wouldn’t say I was comfortable, but I had a little more speed left and they were breathing heavily. There was a short section ahead that had a slight rise and I always run that bit well; I’d make my move there, pull out a lead and hang on. That is exactly how it happened, I could tell from the heavy breathing that I was maintaining a reasonable gap. I could hold this pace until the end, there was about 2k to go, so I concentrated on good running form and keeping things smooth.
Then I heard ‘heavy breathing’ getting closer, but not very rapidly, no need to panic just yet, just open the throttle ever so slightly. That did the trick, the breathing never got any closer, but a little worryingly it didn’t get any further away either. This could be a problem, I’m not a good sprint finisher so I wanted a reasonable lead. Right I’ll keep at this pace, then about 1k out I’ll move it up a notch then with 200m to go I’ll give it everything.
Then there was a game changer, we’d been moving at a pace that was quick enough to be catching up someone in front and they suddenly came into view as we rounded a bend. This spurred ‘heavy breathing’ on, but it spurred me one even more, I like chasing people down. Gradually I was hauling them in and with about 500 metres to go I passed them. They looked as though they had nothing more to give, but you never know. Being passed near the end can give some people the ability to reach deep inside and find extra energy. I’d listen carefully, I never look behind, and respond early if necessary.
Everything was alright as I reached the bottom of the short sharp hill near the finish. Several weeks earlier, when I was a marshal at that point, I’d noticed that everyone that bent at the waist into the hill slowed down significantly, but the people who kept a straight back maintained their pace. My back was ramrod straight (well as near as possible for me) and I ran well up the hill. Just the final 100 metres or so of the gentle slope then the sprint across the grass to the finish line.
But there was a final piece of drama, someone was catching me up, it wasn’t the person I’d just passed and it wasn’t ‘heavy breathing’, it was someone new; an unknown quantity. It was all out now, I was not going to be passed. This was hurting, hurting lots, and it wasn’t working, they were going to come flying past on the grass to steal my victory. Desperate measures time; override the central governor and push it right into the red. I crossed the finish line, then bent double with my hands on my knees desperately trying to drag oxygen into my lungs, which were on fire, and listening to my heart hammering away.
Then I heard sweet music, someone put their hand on my back and said, “I tried my hardest, but just couldn’t catch you.” I was still in too much discomfort to look up and find out who it was. I’d look in the results later to find out. A little later I heard the runner I’d passed come in, then ‘heavy breathing’. Once I felt a little better I went over to a bench, sat down, chatted to some friends and cheered the rest of the runners in.
None of it mattered, I didn’t win anything, didn’t run a particularly fast time. There were no spectators, other that the volunteers at the finish. No one knew about the battles, except the protagonists and we probably had completely different views about what was going on. But we set ourselves these challenges, well at least I do, and it makes things more interesting and helps us push a little harder and feel good about ourselves, even if we lose, because we’ve tried our best.